Often brilliantly written if far too brief first novel from Schutt (Nightwork, stories: 2000) about a dotty AWOL mother and her young daughter set adrift among rich relatives in the Midwest
To narrator Alice, “Florida” signifies the hopeful period before her father died in a car accident, the dream of sunshine and good times that her flighty, pampered mother, also named Alice, recalled as she worked on her winter tan in a sunfoil bed. By the time Alice is ten, Mother has run through a succession of abusive men she refers to collectively as “Walter,” and her own private Florida becomes the refuge she takes in the sanitarium for the rest of her daughter’s childhood. Mother’s desertion leaves Alice in the care of wealthy relatives who live in various houses along a lake in the chilly “land-of-lakes state.” First, she’s stuck with stingy, proprietary Aunt Frances and flashy, adventurous Uncle Billy; only their loyal uncomplaining driver Arthur displays real fondness for Alice. As a teenager, she lives in the fabulously appointed Big House of her aged Nonna, wheelchair-bound and mute after a stroke. Schutt’s narrative is made up of elegant, sometimes maddeningly elliptical vignettes repetitively entitled “Mother” or “Arthur” or “The Big House.” These furnish tidbits of memory about each character or place: Uncle Billy takes the family along “prospecting” in Arizona, Nonna reveals that she never had any room in her heart for her wayward daughter. Schutt has an ear for marvelous, startling sentences. “The brown yolks of his eyes had broken and smeared to a dog-wild and wounded gaze,” she writes of one Walter; young Alice’s high-school teacher, Mr. Early, the first to encourage her to write, is described as “pinball body, angry nose and bald spot.” Unfortunately, the underdeveloped second part, following Alice to New York to teach literature while Mother gradually deteriorates in homes in California, never holds together.
Still, despite the weaknesses: a dazzling start for a writer we want to hear from again.